Monday, February 23, 2009

Skeleton Tales

by Andrea Campbell

Question: If a skeleton is found walled up in a crumbling old house, what can the skeleton tell a forensic pathologist about itself? I assume sex, and if there were any injuries, like if he or she got bonked on the head before being walled up. Old broken bones, that sort of thing. But what else would we know about the deceased? Would it be mummified? Would there be any clothes left? Time of death is 20-30 years previous. How involved is the forensic pathologist going to be with the case? In your experience, are FP’s more likely to be men or women?

There’s a lot here to consider, let’s see where it goes. I’d like to define some positions before we get down to the bones. Definition: “Forensic pathology” involves the investigation of sudden, unnatural, unexplained or violent death. A medical examiner will typically be a forensic pathologist and, in his capacity within the criminal justice system, he will be called a “medical examiner” or m.e. If he has not been appointed, he will remain a forensic pathologist.

A regular pathologist (without the “forensic” designation, will be affiliated with a hospital.) By virtue of being appointed though, the forensic pathologist takes on a new title, Medical Examiner. And to define this still more, a coroner is an “elected official” who does not have to have any medical degree whatsoever. His position is based on English common law and, often, the coroner was the man who made the funeral arrangements. There are still many coroners in the United States.

Since the body in this case is so old, the m.e. may take a stab

(sorry, puns just seem to show up) at estimating time since death but, most likely, after making out a report (chain of command)—he will call in a forensic anthropologist, a specialty primarily concerned with the identification and examination of human skeletal remains.

The Forensic Goal, regardless of condition, is to identify the remains, determine the circumstances of unexplained death. (And also be able to testify in court, if need be.)

Where the forensic anthropologist is headed:

The first questions s/he will answer: • Are the bones human? • How many are present? • What is the time since death? • What is the manner of death? The main and most important job left to the anthropologist is to be able to determine major biological characteristics such as, age, sex, race or ethnicity, and stature. These are what are referred to as specific group characteristics.

“Individual” biological traits such as a pattern of dental restoration, evidence of a previous trauma or medical condition, and any unusual biological characteristics help to define the victim further, giving focus to a more specific age, sex or race group.

In the lab, investigators will examine small structures on the skeleton such as any small changes at the joint; for example, the elbow or knee might indicate a type of injury. They will look for bumps on the bone, which can indicate the site of a well-healed fracture. Perhaps they will stumble on an empty tooth socket would indicating tooth loss either shortly before death or during the recovery phase. (The way to determine the difference would be evidenced by the healing process.) And, basically, they are looking for characteristics that are either normal or abnormal because, if they are abnormal, they may have forensic significance.

Another notion, which is just as important as these biological determinations is being able to identify circumstances leading to the findings and judgment of what happened to the remains since death! By this I mean, questions concerning the state of the body: was the body moved? Time determination since death? Did trauma occur on the bones before, during or after death? I can tell you how a forensic anthropologist determines certain things, but that is for another question.

The medical examiner will be available for consultation and court testimony as long as needed for the case. (S/he works for the state.) The investigative detective assigned to the case will most likely be at an autopsy but, if not, she will still follow up with the M.E. in the lab.

Mummification of a corpse depends on the temperature and dryness of the area because heat and drying is the main ingredient. There should be clothes or artifacts if they were left behind. Their condition is another thing, meaning, moths may have eaten wool, termites may have eaten wood, worms may have ingested adipocere (body fat), and so forth, but without animals present, there is no reason why artifacts such as clothes would not be present.

Here is what a typical Forensic Anthropologist report may have on it:

Summary of Physical Characteristics on an Adult Skeleton

Case #______ Date________

  • Sex:
  • Age:
  • Race:
  • Height:
  • Distinguishing dental profile:
  • Handedness:
  • Ante-mortem trauma:
  • Peri-mortem trauma
  • Post-mortem trauma:
  • Disposition of body:
  • Time since death:
  • Pathology:
  • Build:
  • Comments or summary:
Suggested reading: Human and Nonhuman Bone Identification: A Color Atlas by Diane L. France (CRC Press, 2009). This is an expensive book for professionals but you may be able to order it through your library using Interlibrary Loan. Wonderful color exemplars.

The Bone Detectives: How Forensic Anthropologists Solve Crimes and Uncover Mysteries of the Dead by Donna M. Jackson (Little, Brown, 1996). This is a wonderful older book because the photography is so compelling; it is also oversized, but specifically for the children’s market. Jackson does a good job of outlining the job of a forensic anthropologist and includes a couple of well-known historical forensic cases.

Final comment: Women can do anything men can do within the criminal justice system.

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